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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Weddings and the State Edition

A timely question this week that opens the door to some significant questions about weddings and the church and the state...

Last Friday night, a colleague got a panicked call from the couple she was scheduled to marry the next day. They could not find the marriage license! My friend sent out a Tweet of desperation:

Question- what do you do if couple got license and now can't find it the night before the wedding?

Her friends responded with advice that varied by state and denomination. Some said go ahead, just complete the paperwork later. Others said that in their states it was illegal to perform a wedding without a license. What do the Matriarchs think?

In this case there was a happy ending. The couple found the license and sent the pastor a text while she was sleeping.

Sharon, who blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy shares the following…

Speaking as a United Church of Christ pastor: My wedding policy is that the couple brings the license to the rehearsal so that I can complete the paperwork between then and the wedding service. I would have no problem officiating at a wedding service without the license. Actually, this is what I do for same sex marriages whose unions are still not legally recognized in the states where I have served.

Whenever there is a crisis like this, it's helpful to think of what your pastoral role is and what it isn't. The couple's responsibility is to get the license and to make sure the legal steps are followed, which includes getting that license to their pastor. You can help them clarify the options, and you can remain calm, good natured and supportive. If you can sign the license in a timely manner, then do so. If not, they will have to figure out what to do to get legally married.

An idea I find quite appealing is one that some of my colleagues have adopted: The pastor does the spiritual wedding; the couple finalizes the legal part in the legal system; and never the twain shall meet!

Muthah+, who blogs at Stone of Witness adds

I have had this happen only once and it was a wedding that was not in the church. I went ahead and married them and did the paper work afterwards. But I felt really uncomfortable about it.

In the church I do the paperwork the night before at the rehearsal except for my signature. If they forget it at the rehearsal they have to go home and get before I will do the rehearsal. In NY the clergy send in the licence so I signed the paperwork on the day of the wedding and mailed it the next day.

After almost 30 years of doing weddings, I really would like to see the church get out of the wedding business. Our theology on marriage--no matter what denomination-- is questionable at best. The biblical references are suspect also--we need but look at last Sundays lections, but until we understand the meaning of relationship, committed relationship that is not based upon sex, we are not going to be able to articulate what marriage means other than a licence to have sex. But no one seems to need that these days anyway.

OK, I will admit to being a bit jaded.

How about you...excited about weddings, or like Muthah+, a bit jaded? Let's talk about it!

May you live in God's amazing grace+



  1. I also require the license to be brought to the rehearsal, where it will remain safely locked up in my office until the marriage is made legal with the signatures, right after the ceremony. When I explain that without it there is no wedding, the couples make sure to remember to bring it! (It also helps that I send numerous reminders.)

    I also am uncomfortable with the "deputizing to county official" that occurs when clergy perform legal duties on the wedding day. I guess I am partly jaded. :)

  2. I have issue with the tradition of going to the bride's home church for the wedding. I would much prefer a couple to develop a relationship with a pastor where they will be living and have her/him officiate. Marriage prep counseling is an opportunity to build a relationship for the future. A bride who has been away four-ten years doesn't know the current pastor, wants to bring back her youth pastor, and that does not help build ties to the community that will support them in building a marriage. (OK. End of sermon)

  3. non-clergy lurker here, but I would love to see the US go to a civil union (government)/ separate religious marriage ceremony (church) format.

    I just don't get why the government has to be involved in something that's a religious ceremony.

    To me - the religious part is what "matters" - and I wish there was a way to get married in the church, and not be married in the eyes of the state (I think a lot of state laws regarding the combining of assets, etc, are from the dark ages)

    Of course most people I'm around here in the Bible belt would find that view strange (and probably would consider a couple who had a religious ceremony but not a civil marriage to be "living in sin" which blows my mind, because what is more important to us here, God or the State?!?!)

    That said - obviously until (or if) we ever get to that point, y'all still have to abide by the law, so...

    (Though I do have to ask - is there any way to legally perform a wedding ceremony without it being a civil marriage? Is there things that have to be left out to not get the pastor into trouble?)

  4. Ugh, my comment disappeared. I agree with anonymous any separating them... It sure would clear up some problems with the same sex marriage conversation, too.

    I have couples bring in their licenses as soon as they get them... Even a month before. It gets put in their file at the church and no one has to fret!

  5. I also require the license at the rehearsal, and I have the witnesses sign then, because I don't want to risk losing sight of them after the ceremony. It doesn't count until *I* sign it, after all.
    But that's about the practicality of getting the paperwork done, on behalf of the state.
    On a deeper level, I'm acting, at a wedding, I'm invoking God's presence as two people make commitments to one another. That has nothing to do with a license. I would have no problem doing the paperwork later, or not at all. I wish we could separate the whole thing.

  6. WE ask for the license at least a week ahead of time. This allows the Office Admin to get the registry book ready for the service but also allows us to confirm that a) it exists, and b) the information matches what we have already been told. In Canada no license means the legal/civil part of the wedding can't happen. BUt certainly the religious blessing of the relationship/ making covenantal vows can happen. That part has little to do with the legal aspects.

    I also offer that the couple can leave the license at the church any time after they get it (in Alberta they can get it up to 3 months before the service) so that it won't get mislaid.

  7. I always tell the couple that without the license, I won't do the ceremony, period. I'm retired and have no church where I can lock up their license, so it's up to them to hand it to me before the service. My former husband did forget the license when he remarried, according to my children, who told me, "Daddy forgot the license and had to go home and get it." The wedding party waited at Signal Point, which has a beautiful view of other mountains with the Tennessee River flowing around an island and the city of Chattanooga in the distance, until "Daddy" got back. So that pastor wouldn't do it without the license.

    On the other hand, a couple I was to marry one August 6th, many years ago, discovered the groom's pending major surgery, requiring a body cast afterwards, would be "a pre-existing condition" not covered by her insurance (he had been disabled because of a work accident). She came to me distraught because he lived alon and needed her to take care of him, yet they couldn't get married. What to do? I offered to perform what I called a betrothal, as binding to them as Mary and Joseph's, yet not legal as far as the state was concerned. We did it in the church sanctuary, just the three of us with one other couple present. The bride's mother was happy, the bride moved in to care for the groom after his surgery, and exactly one year later on August 6th, I married them following the usual marriage ceremony. A bit unorthodox and definitely nothing legal one way or the other, but with a happy ending.

  8. I've only had one couple "forget" the license. I called up the county clerk and arranged for them to get one, even though it was a weekend. We made it all legal and no sooner had they gotten home from the honeymoon than the whole thing fell into very messy pieces. I was sorry I had enabled it to take place at all. But in the future I intend to take any other "slips" as a serious warning sign and back out. Ugh. It was awful.

  9. I agree with anonymous. I talk with couples about the fact that once they commit to each other, they are married. We are blessing and praying their union during a wedding, at which they make public promises so that those present can help them hold true to those vows. I tell them the license is so that they can have state benefits, which are not in my purview. If they wish to receive those benefits, they need to get the license to me before the ceremony, collect their witnesses and be sure to get it to city hall. I really dislike having any connection to state agency, so I make that their task. I haven't had anyone forget yet. It may yet happen and we'll deal with it at that time.

    I do make a "marriage certificate" of sorts for same-sex unions that I bless. I have found that many couples want that paper that they associate, in some way, with legitimacy.

  10. Thanks for this discussion; it's very interesting! I have strong views about the church getting out of the legal side of marriage and sticking to what we do best, which is offering God's blessing and our prayers, but I've never thought too much about the function of the license itself. I require it at or before the rehearsal, when everyone but me signs it, and I've never had anyone fail to bring it, so this is an interesting topic.

  11. I also have them bring the license to the rehearsal. Here in Virginia, only the officiant signs the license. We have the bride and groom and honor attendants sign our church register, however, which sometimes requires some rounding up while the photographer is staging photos. Add my name to the list of those who wish we would separate the religious ceremony of marriage from the secular paperwork. I don't like being an agent of the state. I like the boss I've already got, thank you very much.

    I also struggle with the issue of presiding at wedding ceremonies for folks who went here years ago and now simply want to make our church their "destination wedding." It is not always a clearcut thing - a family member who still attends may be too old and infirm to go to where the couple now live, for example, but the necessity for building a relationship in the context of parish family is real. Sigh...I am never an absolutist on anything, though, so there are always exceptions.


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